Guest Post by Louisa Strothman, Humanities Action Lab Intern
Youth housed in adult prisons and jails are thirty six times more likely to commit suicide and at a much higher risk of physical and sexual assault. To avoid assault, juveniles are often placed in solitary confinement for extended periods of time for their safety, which often leads to mental health deterioration. New York City watched this play out with Kalief Browder, a sixteen year–old in the Bronx accused of stealing a backpack who spent three years at Rikers Island and committed suicide a year after his release, unable to escape the psychological trauma of incarceration. Recent studies have shown that people’s brains do not fully develop until the age of twenty-five, and so it is unethical to hold teenagers to the same responsibility level as adults.
New York and North Carolina are the only two states where sixteen and seventeen year-olds are automatically tried as adults and placed in adult jails while awaiting trial. In early 2015, Governor Cuomo introduced a bill and launched a campaign that would allow young people to be tried in family court as opposed to criminal court. Senate Majority Leader John Flanagan has come out in opposition of this bill, saying it was not a priority and other senators questioned whether it would actually promote safety for the greater New York community. Last year, New York Congress overturned the controversial bill and it did not pass, but it has been brought back to be voted on again in 2016. In January of 2016, President Obama announced a ban on solitary confinement for juveniles in federal prisons.
On Tuesday, March 8th, I had the opportunity to advocate to New York legislators at the Capitol Building to raise the age of criminal responsibility. In Albany, I was with teachers, lawyers, students who had graduated from Exalt, and participants in Year Up, two voluntary front-end divergent programs. These programs provide young adults involved in the criminal justice system with an alternative to prison. Exalt and Year Up provide opportunities for paid internships to underserved youth to develop professional training and pursue education. Exalt provides education on the prison-industrial-complex and the school-to-prison pipeline as well as counseling services. To participate in Exalt, youth must have been involved in the court system.
Brian Lewis, a professor of the Eugene Lang College course, Theater for Social Justice: Mass Incarceration, doubles as a senior teacher at Exalt. As a student in Professor Lewis’s class, I had the opportunity to learn from the lived experiences of the Exalt students, whose stories of injustice and opportunity inspired me, and more importantly, congressional staffers with influence in Albany.
Positive change is possible for youth in the court system when they have a safe place, professional training, and understanding of the criminal justice system. Each student explained the positive change Exalt has made in their lives.
The students proposed policy reforms that would give New York State youth a second chance. They proposed ways to avoid the criminal justice system and create safer neighborhoods and improve young people’s knowledge, motivation, and skills. To do so, they recommended policy changes that increase opportunities and funding for programs like Exalt instead of prison and jail time. Many young people who end up in the system are not looking to be a part of it. “We could teach the youth job readiness skills, professional skills, school-to-prison pipeline, prison industrial complex so youths know that the system is set up to fail them,” said Ikeem, a college student and a tutor and mentor for younger black teenagers in the system.
“Everyone comes from somewhere. Living in the urban community you got to adapt to your surroundings,” Traekwon, a high school student, said about how he and people like him end up in illegal activity. Cali, a recent high school graduate and spoken word artist, talked about how her experience at Exalt had changed her for the better. Until coming to the program she did not know she could have a job in something she was passionate about, or that a workplace could be a supportive environment. Latune, who interns for a successful artist and attends a specialized high school, explained that there is nothing else for kids in her community if they do not have opportunities beyond school, “Because after school programs teach you how to be more creative and how to be a whole person and if those aren’t there, what do you do?”
Congressional staff were receptive to our points on the science and facts of the effects of adult incarceration on teenagers as well as the stories of personal experience. New York State has the potential for meaningful legislative change in youth incarceration.
To get involved with action to Raise the Age in New York, visit http://raisetheageny.com/.